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The E Street Band's Jake Clemons: The rules have changed

Dec 11, 2019

Jake Clemons is the son of a U.S. Marine band director, a kid who grew up in a strict Southern Baptist household. "We listened to a lot of marching-band music," he says. "I was very familiar with John Philip Sousa, a lot of classical music and gospel." But Jake also knew that his uncle, Clarence Clemons, was the saxophonist for one of the biggest rock 'n' roll bands in the world: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Eventually, those divergent worlds had to collide. Clarence Clemons, who Jake calls a father figure, died in 2011. Jake took his place onstage with the E Street Band. And now Jake Clemons has released a new album, "Eyes on the Horizon," with a show Dec. 19 at Flour City Station.

"I wasn't exposed to a lot of modern, cultural music when I was a kid," Clemons says. "So that's left me with a lot of room to explore. And to discover things as I went along."

Jake Clemens plays Dec. 19 at Flour City Station.
Credit Provided Photo / DRPR

While the saxophone is there, it doesn't dominate "Eyes on the Horizon." Clemons is a multi-instrumentalist. He sings. He wrote nine of the 10 songs. And he closes out the album with a track, "Goodnight," that is driven by African percussion and polyrhythms. A track that's "communicating the rawest form of emotion through those drums," he says. "Whether you're going to war or you're going to have a celebration, there's something that transcends lyrics, and even melody, when you have a drumbeat that's communicating that way."

Still, "Eyes on the Horizon" is a rock record, and offers moments when listeners will think: "I can hear the E Street Band playing a riff like that."

"I was 8 years old when I saw E Street for the first time, that was my first time hearing electric guitars and distortion," Clemons says. "I don't remember the sound much, but I remember being intrigued by the moment. And after that I would kind of sneak MTV on a very rare occasion, whenever I could, when everyone was outside, or I had a moment to myself and I would turn on the TV."

He was 12 when his older brother got his hands on "Nevermind," Nirvana's breakout grunge album "which he listened to religiously in his car and tortured me with, until I found a way to love it," Clemons says. "Being exposed to modern music so late, it just allowed me to, you know, try out lots of different things that are not being said, per se."

For example: How to tell a story. "I've been a big fan of classic composers," Clemons says. "And when they do operas or symphonies, there's a whole compelling theme, a story that's being unfolded."

His own story is one of growing up on military bases, in that Southern Baptist home, which could be limiting to music-starved ears. But it was also an experience that worked in other interesting ways. "It was really an amazing way to grow up," he says, "in these communities where nobody is from that town and there is a really strong emphasis on the fact that we really kind of needed each other. Our neighbors were not just people who lived next to us, we lived amidst and with our neighbors."

Some of the songs of "Eyes on the Horizon" are a warning. As Clemens writes, "The crop was rich, but now it's gone," from "Nothing Left."

"I've watched over the last 30 years that just kind of fade," he says. "And us, you know, as a whole, as a culture, we've lost touch of each other, and allowed ourselves to be really divided. So for me, I just felt really compelled to speak to that. With division comes a lack of empathy, and that's my biggest fear probably for society, for humankind.

"For the first time in our society, we're watching it take a back step. That's scary."

It's reflected in a line from Leonard Cohen's "Democracy," the only song on the album that Clemons did not write: America, "The cradle of the best and of the worst."

"In the states, we're driven to move things forward," Clemons says. "We have this, we're born with this rebellious spirit in the U.S., to challenge the boundaries. And what comes with that is a lot of great things, invention and progress. But the opposite side of that is often oppression. There's winners and losers, and it becomes very, very inhuman in some ways, I think."

Springsteen is well-known for putting out there his social and political beliefs. The same for E Street guitarist "Little" Steven Van Zandt. But the band is not homogeneous. "You have a group that's that big, you've got lots of different views going on," Clemons says.

And with time, those passions can change. "There's a saying that's, 'You never see an idealist with gray hairs on his head.' Even with Bruce throughout the years, he's talked about lots of different things.

"I'm still compelled to find my voice in that way, and use my connection with the world in a way that seeks to improve it. Being around my heroes who I watched doing that for so long has been transformative in a lot of ways."

The country is changing as well, he says.

"We're in the midst of a new era right now, where the rules have changed, and it's a beautiful thing, it's something I'm excited about. When I was a kid, I grew up in the Clinton era and watched the impeachment trials going on, and a lot of the consideration that I remember seeing was the integrity of that office, and also what family means, you know? How could you do this to your wife and children, you know? And I've seen now how that conversation has shifted, that's not even a part of the conversation even more. A family is not even considered, it's largely about, is there a scandal behind it? Did you cheat the system? Did you lie about it? I think the conversation needs to be bigger again, I think it goes back to that sense of empathy, and being able to relate and connect to each other.

"You want to talk about trickle-down effect? Let's start there."

And if Jake Clemons is talking about Reaganomics trickle-down, he has to talk about his uncle. Clarence Clemons would pass along to his nephew his used saxophones -- some of them a little roughed-up from the road. All of Jake's saxophones, save for one, once belonged to his uncle. People sometimes mistake the relationship as father and son, but Jake says he usually doesn't bother to correct the error.

"Clarence understood me, like…" Jake pauses, and repeats himself, this time more emphatically: "He understood me. My dad and I didn't necessarily get along very well, we were very different. Clarence and I were very similar, he was very much a father figure. We were woven from the same cloth. Not entirely, but in a lot of ways."

When Clemons died from complications of a stroke, Jake had already been out on his own, with his own band. He even changed his name for several years so people wouldn't make the connection. If Jake Christian made it, he made it on his own merits. "I intentionally didn't learn any E Street songs to that point," Clemons says.

Perhaps it was natural that Jake would join E Street, and learn some Springsteen songs. "They've always been family to me anyway," he says. Nevertheless, he calls it a "difficult, but beautiful process." Rehearsing nine hours a day, "it was the first time my lips bled since high school."

The parts in the E Street Band's show that were carved out for Clarence now belong to Jake. "There are certain elements that are unavoidable," he admits. "Call it DNA or whatever. When we started rehearsing, someone in the room said, 'Man, it's freaky, when your back's turned, you look just like him.'

"It's been really special to me to keep his name, his saxophone, on the E Street stage. I'm blowing through his mouthpieces to his saxophones. It's a tremendous connection for me to maintain.

"He remains, man, you know? I feel him with me. To be honest with you, there are often times I'll step up, in my head I'll say, like, 'This one's on you. You take this one.'"

Vitolio Jeune from Garth Fagan Dance.
Credit Julie Lemberger / Provided

Fagan anniversary approaches

Next year will be a big one for Garth Fagan Dance; a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Fagan's arrival in western New York. His troupe will dance with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, among many other events. In fact, the celebration is already on us. "The Lion King," which Fagan choreographed for Broadway, comes to the Auditorium Theatre on Dec. 19, running through Jan. 5.

The Garth Fagan Dance home season opens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11, at Nazareth College's Callahan Theater. It runs through Dec. 15, with works by Norwood Pennewell as well, including his latest dance, "Triptych." The program will also include parts of "The North Star," Fagan's tribute to Frederick Douglass. A meet-and-greet in the lobby with the entire company will follow each performance. For tickets and more information, go to garthfagandance.org.

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Credit Provided photo / Joywave

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Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.